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By Daniel Farish
The Sweet 16 of the Ultimate Queens Bracket Challenge is upon us. Today, we are taking a look at not one, but two regions, as these players hope to advance to the Elite 8.
Here are the matches you can vote on today by visiting the Professional Women’s Bowling Association on Twitter, Instagram Story and Facebook Story:
Liz Johnson (2009, 2015) vs. Dasha Kovalova (2019)
Shannon O’Keefe (2018) vs. Missy Parkin (2011)
Carolyn Dorin-Ballard (2001) vs. Kelly Kulick (2007, 2010)
Kim Kearney (2002) vs. Shannon Pluhowsky (2006)
The featured match of this round includes Liz Johnson and Dasha Kovalova, a tasty little rematch of the 2019 Pepsi PWBA Louisville Open title tilt. Kovalova had won the USBC Queens earlier that season and was looking for her second career title. Johnson had her eyes on her 25th career PWBA Tour title.
While this one match doesn’t take long to recap, with Kovalova firing the fourth televised 300 game in PWBA history, the event itself gives me the version of each player I would want for this fictional three-game set.
Kovalova was coming off a disappointing performance the week before at the PWBA East Hartford Open and had arrived early to Louisville, so she could practice at the venue before the tournament started. I had predicted early on during the BowlTV broadcast that Kovalova would at least make the show, if not win the event outright.
At the culmination of each round of qualifying, Kovalova never was lower than fourth and ultimately earned the second seed on the TV show, 95 pins behind Johnson.
Johnson led after the first round by just 14 pins, then exploded in the second round by shooting 1,828 for eight games (a 228.5 average), which was 92 pins better than her closest competitor. That block helped her build a 149-pin lead and allowed her to cruise through the Round of 12 and earn the top seed.
After dispatching Maria José Rodriguez in the semifinal, 226-198, Kovalova moved on to face Johnson in what would become one of the most historic matches in PWBA history.
Johnson, who had used the same ball during all 22 games of qualifying for the first time since 1997, started the match with a different ball. That decision, paired with some suspect shot making, dug a hole for the six-time U.S. Women’s Open champion. Kovalova kept striking, and the rest, they say, is history.
Kovalova went on to finish ninth at the BowlerX.com PWBA Orlando Open, fifth at the QubicaAMF PWBA Players Championship and was one bad lane away from challenging Shannon O’Keefe at the PWBA Tour Championship.
To recap that PWBA Tour Championship appearance, Kovalova shot 279 against Danielle McEwan in the semifinals but completely lost the left lane against O’Keefe to drop the title match, 268-179.
Can Kovalova find the magic necessary to knock off Johnson again? Or will Johnson make better decisions and throw better shots, avenge the loss in Louisville and advance to the next round of the Ultimate Queens Bracket Challenge?
What about Missy Parkin and Shannon O’Keefe?
Based on research I was able to do under quarantine, and without the aid of the massive USBC archives in Arlington, Texas, these two have gotten the best of each other in head-to-head matches over the years, with neither holding a sizeable advantage.
Both players cashed a PWBA Tour-leading 13 times last year, part of a four-way tie with Johnson and Bryanna Coté. While O’Keefe has been the dominant player on tour, she would be smart to not let Parkin hang around.
Kelly Kulick and Carolyn Dorin-Ballard won their Queens titles while carving up some of the most dominant seasons in women’s professional bowling history.
Dorin-Ballard captured the 2001 Queens title in the midst of a record seven-win season on the PWBA Tour, which included a streak of three consecutive wins (Fort Worth Classic, Greater Memphis Open, Southern Virginia Open).
Kulick’s 2010 Queens title came during a nine-month span that also included the 2009 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Women’s Shark Championship, 2009 PBA Women’s World Championship, 2010 U.S. Women’s Open and her historic win at the 2010 PBA Tournament of Champions.
So, basically, you must choose: 2001 Carolyn Dorin-Ballard or 2009-2010 Kelly Kulick.
Oomph. That’s rough.
Our final match features fan favorite and three-time PWBA major champion Kim Kearney against Shannon Pluhowsky, who threw, what I said in the 2000-2009 preview, were “three of the most cold-blooded, pressure-packed strikes you could ever see in your life” to clinch the 2006 Queens title.
I didn’t give my personal picks for the first round. I wanted to let you, the voters, do that for me. But, starting with this round, I’m going to tell you who I think is going to advance, and how.
I think Kovalova continues her streak of great bowling and tops Johnson in a close match. Johnson jumps out early on the fresh and has a comfortable lead early in the second game. Once the shot starts moving in, Kovalova gets into that half pocket/swisher zone where she carried six of her 12 strikes in the perfect game in Louisville and claws her way back, shooting 268 the final game to win the match, 712-699.
Unfazed by O’Keefe’s domination on tour the last few years, Parkin shoots 279 out of the gate against O’Keefe’s 213, just like she did in the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open.
Putting that game behind her, O’Keefe starts Game 2 with three strikes, before leaving the 2-8 and 4-9 combinations in back-to-back frames. Those two frames flummox O’Keefe; Parkin keeps striking and wins the match handily, 765-644.
The much-heralded match between Dorin-Ballard and Kulick proves to be low on scoring and high on excitement, with neither player breaking 200 during the first two games. Stepping up in the 10th frame and needing only a mark to win, CDB goes high flush and leaves the 4-7-9-10. On the spare attempt, she slides the 4 pin in front of the 9 pin, taking out the 10 pin, resulting in a 578-578 tie.
In the ensuing one-ball sudden death roll-off, both players strike on their first four deliveries. Dorin-Ballard carries a light swisher on her fifth attempt. Needing a strike to stay alive, Kulick leaves a Randy Pedersen-esque 8 pin that causes CDB to run around the arena yelling, “I don’t believe it!”
OK, maybe that last part doesn’t happen. But the stone 8 pin does, and CDB advances.
Despite staying clean through two games, Kearney shoots way too many single pins and trails Pluhowsky by 55 pins going into the final game. All the southpaw needs to do is stay clean and out of trouble, and she advances. Unfortunately for Pluhowsky, a 4-6-7-10 split and a chopped 3-9 let Kearney back in the match.
True to form, however, Pluhowsky steps up in the 10th frame needing a double and splits the 8-9 on all three shots, winning the match, 675-665.
That’s how I see these matches playing out. What do you think?
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